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Bad Santa

review by Zach B.

 

 

MPAA Rating: R

Running Time: 99 minutes

Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Tony Cox, Lauren Graham, Brett Kelly, Lauren Tom with John Ritter and Bernie Mac

Written by: Glenn Ficarra & John Requa

Directed by: Terry Zwigoff

 

Studio: Disney

Retail Price: $29.99

Features: Deleted and Alternate Scenes, Making-Of Featurette, Outtakes

Specs: 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen, English Dolby Digital 5.1, English Subtitles, English Closed Captions, Scene Selections

Released: June 22nd, 2004

 

 

Willie T. Stokes (Billy Bob Thornton) and his (short) partner in crime, Marcus (Tony Cox) have an annual routine: each and every holiday season the two go to shopping malls as a Santa and elf team. And each and every Christmas Eve, the two rob the main safes in the malls and hightail it and live off what they make on these heists for the rest of the year. But Willie is getting rusty: he's having more personal problems, he's drinking more and worst of all for Marcus, Willie is losing focus and isn't as sharp as he used to be. And while Willie has dreams of quitting this annual tradition, he ends up crawling back to Marcus for yet another scam - this time in Arizona.

But their latest scam doesn't go the way it usually does. Willie is falling off the horse more than ever and keeps putting his and Marcus' job at risk, and it doesn't help that the mall manager (John Ritter) begins to disapprove of them and alerts it to the security chief (Bernie Mac) who begins to look into them, and his a few tricks up his own sleeve. Willie begins to take up with a bartender (Lauren Graham), and while Willie and Marcus prepare yet again for another heist, that's not the major part of the story. Rather, it focuses on Willie unexpectedly befriending a lonely and somewhat creepy overweight eight-year-old (Brett Kelly) and teaching him a few lessons in the process, all while moving in to his house alongside him and the kid's senile grandmother.

I think it's pretty safe to say this: you're either going to love "Bad Santa" or hate it. Most of that, if not all of it, will be determined by your love or hatred of vulgar humor and the raunchy. I'm not a giant gross-out comedy fan, but I do enjoy immensely if done right. And while there is some disgusting comedy in this film, there is also a lot of darkness to it (that I'm a big fan of). I think the film's concept is pretty ingenious, but there are plenty of inspired laughs. The film isn't as constantly funny as I hoped, and it is a bit repetitive, but if you're into any of this humor then there is a lot to appreciate. There are some great running gags, some random moments of humor, profane-infused but nailbiting dialogue exchanges, hilarious one-liners and very amusing slapstick moments. While director Terry Zwigoff has showed great talent for dark humor in his documentary "Crumb" and "Ghost World," the comedy here isn't all in the characters or lines, but is more broad and situational. Zwigoff certainly shows his knack for unconventional humor to a bigger audience here.

I must also say that I went in to "Bad Santa" expecting an all-out festival of profanity and sick humor. While I did get that, I must say I was pretty surprised and impressed in how Zwigoff handles the movie as a whole. It is a comedy, but believe it or not, there is actually an emotional punch to it that works beautifully. The emotional punch is the relationship between Willie and the kid Thurmond. Thurmond believes he is the real Santa (up to a point at least but still calls him Santa), and even though Willie is using him at first a father-son bond begins to form between them (which is the last thing Willie wants, but ends up not resisting it). Despite the film's cruel nature, there is actually a point to it all. There is actually a point to Willie's opening monologue, his overall demeanor and little details we learn about him. In short, this film is about redemption.

When we first meet Willie, and during the film, we see what a terrible person he is and the bad choices he's made, and we see why. And while the kid is lonely (with a non-existent mother, a weirded out grandmother and a father in jail), Willie takes it upon himself to be a father figure to him and grows to respect and even care for him. It is because of the kid, and these unexpected circumstance, Willie learns his own meaning of Christmas and gradually changes into a more caring and likable man. Willie may not have changed completely by the end of the movie, but some parts of him have for the better. Willie learns a few things, and is able to redeem himself from his demons.

If "Bad Santa" has any flaws other than that it is arguably not always laugh-out-loud funny, it's that some of the story and character aspects are pretty weak. There could have been loads more when it comes to the supporting players - particularly the characters of Sue and the Arizona mall manager. They each serve their purpose within the story: Sue gives Willie company and gradual faith in love and companionship, while the mall manager begins the chain to expose Willie and Marcus. Sue isn't in the movie much or really does much, and the same goes for the mall manager. Many of the supporting players, such as Marcus' mail-order bride, are just there for some quirky laughs. This is a comedy after all and one shouldn't expect a ton of character detail, but it still seems as a let-down given the fact there is strong story material here.

There's also the ending to the movie - which has a little twist that I didn't expect, but probably should have. I won't ruin it, and while it makes way for a clear somewhat foreshadowed ending, it probably could have been handled better. The ending does make sense and wraps things up neatly, but the reasons for it aren't exactly clear nor does it use logic exactly. I know I'm being vague about it, all because I don't want to ruin it, but if anything, the climax could have used a more rounded resolution and more detail to not only make the film more concise, but satisfying as well.

Still, what really helps make the movie a treat is its cast, all of who do incredibly entertaining work here. Billy Bob Thornton, who got a Golden Globe nomination for his performance, is at his best here - and I certainly think it's one of Mr. Thornton's best performances. That character of Willie is a screw loose, who more or less explodes at any given time and who isn't a very nice person. It'd be pretty easy for an actor to overdo something like this and make it too outrageous, but Thornton keeps it in check and doesn't go too far. He does expose all of Willie's bad traits well and makes it fun - the drinking, the cursing, etc. Thornton is quite perfect in how he does it all: his line delivery, how he wobbles and the anger he holds inside. Thornton does make Willie very unlikable (which is the point), but we do grow on to him - especially as he makes his change into a better person.

The supporting players are fabulous as well. The late, great John Ritter is pretty amusing in his final screen role as an uptight, suspicious mall manager (we miss you, John) and Lauren Graham (excellent on TV's "Gilmore Girls") is fun as the bartender/love interest sue, who has a Santa fetish. Character actress Lauren Tom makes good as Marcus' love interest, and Brett Kelly is quite the subversive - but oddly enjoyable child actor. Bernie Mac - like usual - has a hilarious and enjoyable rough edge and gets to be a bit sly here.

But the main standout of this movie is Tony Cox - his performance is pitch-perfect, and he plays flawlessly against all the other actors. Cox as Marcus shows signs of paranoia and holding things together when Willie is down and out, but he gets defensive at times and always sticks it to Willie by telling him what he is. Where Cox really shines is when he spews his acid-tinged words out in a rapid pace, and when he gets angry - such as when he attacks and curses up a storm - it provides many of the movie's best moments. And while it's true the Academy doesn't usually recognize comedic performances, Cox definitely should have gotten some recognition for this movie because he really is that outstanding. Cox has been a bit player before (no pun intended) in some films, but here's hoping his star really gets to rise.

There were critics who loved "Bad Santa" and there were quite a few who derailed it - and I'm positive those two type of camps apply to the the mass-going public. Like a lot of unique films, this one isn't for everybody. But I wouldn't be surprised if "Bad Santa" somehow, in some way, becomes a major cult Christmas classic all its own.

 

The movie is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, and it certainly is a strong transfer. Colors are very well saturated and add a lot of depth to the image - the colors don't bleed either. Fleshtones look flawless, detail is more than exceptional and the overall image quality is sharp. The transfer is also devoid of edge enhancement. But there is some shimmering and noise that come up, as well as some edge halos. Also appearing are nicks and blemishes here and there, while the more darkly lit scenes do not look as good as the moments set in more natural light. Nonetheless, the transfer is pretty pleasing overall.

 

The English Dolby Digital 5.1 included is decent, but a little disappointing (and with all the space on the disc, where's the DTS track?). There are some decent surround effects such as the crowds in bars, the robberies, a certain scene involving cars and Willie's own behavior - lots of throwing of liquor bottles at walls and other places, to be specific. The surrounds are pretty seldom though, and were not as spunky as I hoped. The dialogue is very clear, crisp and easy to hear though and the music sounds pretty nice. Much of the music are classic Christmas tunes, and while they're not put forth in interesting ways within the speakers, they do give off a lot of life and strength to help set the mood. The track isn't too bad, but I think it could have been better. English subtitles and English closed captions are also included.

 

"Bad Santa" was a sleeper success in the holiday season of 2003, and went on to gross a pretty impressive 60 million at the domestic box office (pretty spectacular overall, considering the film was budgeted at 18 million). Still, despite that, there isn't really anything in-depth on the disc and that disappoints (though given what I know about Zwigoff, he does not seem interested in supplements).

The Deleted and Alternate Scenes section features three scenes. The first, "Santa Trainer Scene" could have probably been left in the movie even if it doesn't do much (but it does have a cameo from Sarah Silverman). The other two scenes, "Willie leaves Department Store" and "Screaming Baby" are alternate and incomplete takes not featured in the movie - these two are skippable. All of the scenes are in decent non-anamorphic widescreen, and in total, last about five-and-a-half minutes.

The Behind-The-Scenes Special is your standard making-of special to promote the movie with interviews, on-the-set footage and film clips. Producer John Cameron, producer Sarah Aubrey, Zwigoff, Tony Cox, Thornton, Lauren Graham and Brett Kelly give their thoughts on the movie, their roles within it and try to explain the whole thing. There are some decent bits to learn here - such as the Coen brothers (who executive-produced the film) thought of the story and that studios didn't want to touch the film - but it comes across as pretty light making-of featurette overall. Thornton seems passionate about the film though, and it's worth watching this solely for Zwigoff, who does divulge a wry sense of humor and interesting comments about his vision. I really wish he did a commentary for the film.

Rounding it out is an Outtakes reel that is pretty fun and lasts four minutes.

 

"Bad Santa" is not your typical Christmas comedy, but if you like your movies weird and your comedies dark then this bag's for you. It doesn't rank as one of the best holiday themed pictures out there, but it should be admired for its inventiveness and ingenious strokes. The DVD isn't a piece of coal, but it's not something big wrapped in shiny paper either. The transfer is nice, the sound mix nothing special and the extras don't really come out to be much. But if you're in love with the movie then you'll want this, despite the high retail price.